I have written previously about writer Mary Stewart’s childhood and schooldays – see in particular my posts of 12, 16 and 17 December. Now I want to write about her move to Durham in autumn (Michaelmas term) 1935 to begin her studies at St Hild’s College.

According to the pamphlet ‘About Mary Stewart'(p5 of 1970 edition), Mary had wanted to study art but:

‘I had not been allowed to study art as I had wished; there was “no money in it” in those days, and I had a living to earn. I had a talent for teaching, and liked it, so a teacher I had to be.’

Nor could she study at her university of choice: according to her obituary in the Telegraph, Mary’s ‘father’s meagre resources would not allow her to take up either of the places she won at Oxford and Cambridge, so she went instead to university in her native Durham’. I wonder how much this stung, given that her older brother had gone up to Oxford the previous year (graduating in 1938 with a Third Class Theology degree – Times Digital Archive: 15 July 1938, p18).

So Mary went to Durham. St Hild’s College was a Church of England College of Education for female students. Since 1895, women had been permitted to obtain degrees, and in 1923 St Hild’s had become a licensed hall of residence for the university. It was not until 1975, many years after Mary graduated, that St Hild’s amalgamated with its male counterpart St Bede’s, and it was 1979 before Hild Bede became an undergraduate College of Durham University. See this Durham University webpage for more about St Hild’s history.

Sign, located  in the reception area of Hild Bede

Here are some more photographs of present-day Hild Bede, taken on my visit to Durham last month. In Mary’s time, these buildings were those of St Hild’s College.


Mary studied English, gaining a First Class BA on 28 June 1938. She followed this up with her postgraduate teaching qualification (Diploma in the Theory and Practice of Teaching, abbreviated to D Th P T; Div. 1) on 27 June 1939.

I know the exact dates because they are typed on her student registration card, held by the University of Durham Palace Green Library. This little index card also informs us that Mary was awarded her MA on 24 June 1941, and that she was first equal in the Long Reading Prize in March 1937. The other side of the card gives Mary’s name, date of birth, address and other details, all neatly completed in her own handwriting.

We know, then, that Mary was a successful student. What else? Going back to ‘About Mary Stewart’, Mary informs us of a string of facts (p5 of 1970 edition):

‘I went to Durham University in 1935 to read English, and took a First Class Honours B.A. in 1938. I was also President of the Women’s Union. In 1939 I took a First Class Teaching Diploma with English as my special subject, and along with it a First Class in my “extra study” which was Art. I also swam for the University, got my colours and set up one record (probably broken by now). I proceeded to M.A. in 1941.’

During my short time at Palace Green Library, I was unable to find any information about Mary’s swimming activities. However, I did see some hand-written notebooks for the Women’s Union. These are quite amusing in their deadpan minuting of discussions and votes.

First, a reminder that, until her marriage to Frederick Stewart in 1945, Mary’s name was Mary Rainbow. The first mention I found of Mary  was when on 17 June 1938 ‘Miss Rainbow’ seconded the (unsuccessful) nomination of Miss Manners for President. Next, on 8 November of that year, ‘Miss Rainbow proposed and Miss Manners seconded the motion that chocolate should be set out in the Upper Common Room for a while’. This revolutionary proposal met with an amendment but both proposal and amendment were defeated – the bar would remain closed unless a Miss Watson was present! At the same meeting, Miss Rainbow was also unsuccessful in electing Miss Manners as speaker at a Men’s Visitor’s Night Debate.

Matters improved for Mary at the meeting held on 8 December 1938: ‘Miss Rainbow of St Hild’s was proposed by Miss Atkinson and seconded by Miss Manners as President. Voting was unanimous.’ The minutes of the next meeting, on 28 January 1939, summarise her President’s address, called ‘Wide Horizons’, marking her presidency for that term (Epiphany Term): ‘Literature, she said, is the history of thought. Let us look for wide horizons!’ Her address is also minuted as being ‘refreshingly idealistic in this age of gloom and warfare’.

Nothing of any great import seems to have marked Mary’s term in office, all I learned is that she was ‘unable to be present owing to indisposition’ for the meeting on 28 February. And she withdrew from a nomination to be delegate at a debate at Southampton University, as Miss Manners was also nominated.

The minutes confirm, then, that Mary was President of the Women’s Union as asserted in ‘About Mary Stewart’. But, for me, the main finding of these minutes is that they show that Mary and ‘Miss Manners’ were close friends. I don’t know if they knew one another before their student days but Mary Rainbow and Elizabeth Manners were evidently close allies in the Women’s Union; where one name crops up, the other follows.

This is good to see because I know that Elizabeth went on to be Mary’s sole bridesmaid, has Nine Coaches Waiting dedicated to her, is thanked in the Author’s Notes appending Mary’s 1970 novel The Crystal Cave, and accompanied Mary on at least one book promotion trip to America in the 1970s. I feel (with no evidence) that she may be the basis for Louise in Madam, Will You Talk? as well as the Elizabeth to whom Camilla writes in My Brother Michael.

Elizabeth Manners. Copyright The Times newspaper (article 8 June 2012)

Elizabeth Manners became headmistress of Felixstowe College. She is, perhaps, most famous for turning down Diana, Princess of Wales, as a pupil. See also here.

You can see from the Elizabeth Manners obituary that at one point she taught in Middlesbrough: so did Mary. I can’t help but wonder if they both taught at the same school, like Charity and Louise at the Alice Drupe Private School for Girls in Madam, Will You Talk?… but that is a matter for a possible future biography post, on Mary’s teaching and lecturing years.

Well done if you have made it this far – you must be a Mary Stewart Superfan too! Please get in touch if you have any questions or comments.